D’Souza’s Unicorn Analogy

Recently I watched part of a recorded debate between Dinesh D’Souza, author of What’ So Great About Christianity, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. (I couldn’t get the entire debate to download, for some reason.) Obviously, in this post I do not wish to address all or even most of the points raised in the discussion. I wish to address only the following statement by D’Souza:

We’re living in a very unusual time in which atheism has emerged as a kind of militant phenomenon. On the face of that, that’s a little bit odd. Because if you are an unbeliever, why be militant? I don’t believe in unicorns, but I haven’t written any books on the subject. I don’t spend a lot of time denouncing unicorns; I live my life as if unicorns did not exist. But what we have from the atheist side is a belligerent attack on theism, and specifically on Christianity.

D’Souza should not refer to spirited argument as “militant” or “belligerent.” Both of those terms derive from military usage, and both suggest a violent demeanor. Yes, both terms do have secondary meanings that suggest any sort of aggressiveness, and argument can be aggressive. But there is a very big difference between a so-called “militant” atheist who writes a book and a militant atheist who vandalizes a church. Similarly, there is a huge difference between a Christian who argues against abortion and one who murders doctors who perform abortions. I am bothered by the rhetorical blurring of these lines. I suggest that all parties use terms like “militant” and “belligerent” according to their primary usage, and use better-fitted terms to describe speech. For example, a “militant environmentalist” is one who torches buildings or spikes trees, not one who merely writes pamphlets.

But the more important point is D’Souza’s use of the unicorn analogy, which is just silly. Of course nobody spends time writing against unicorns, because nobody seriously believes that unicorns exist. On the other hand, most Americans believe that Christianity is true, and that belief profoundly impacts their lives. Moreover, many Christians wish to impose their beliefs on non-Christians. For instance, many Christians want to outlaw all abortions, impose censorship, ban certain types of medical research, spend tax dollars to promote theology, direct U.S. foreign policy according to theological beliefs, and so on. I guarantee that if a unicorn cult advocated similar policies, critics would soon emerge to oppose unicornists, too. Then unicornists would denounce as militant and belligerent the a-unicornists.

Of course, Christians have never shied away from criticizing beliefs that they think are false. Sometimes, Christians have grown militant and belligerent in the literal sense of threatening, harming, torturing, or murdering those with contrary beliefs.

What I like about D’Souza’s approach is that he explicitly bases his case for Christianity on reason and evidence. I hope he successfully persuades other Christians to sincerely do likewise.

(Note: after writing the text above, I Googled “D’Souza+unicorns” and discovered that other commentators have made criticisms similar to mine.)